Thursday, April 24, 2014
The Bard's Birthday
Of course, we don't really know his birthday--not for certain. The church in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where he was born in 1564, kept records of christenings, not of births. He was christened on 26 April 1564. It's likely (though not certain) he was born a few days earlier. Parents liked to get their infants to the church as soon as possible after birth: Infant mortality was high, and the religious rite of baptism gave the youngster a chance for a better afterlife.Here's a link to the service as recorded in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer. It's haunting to think that these words went into Shakespeare's ears--but he heard only strange sounds (an experience many youngsters share when they first study the Bard!).
I've written here a lot about Shakespeare--including a series of posts that led up to our seeing Richard II, last summer--the last of his plays that Joyce and I had not seen onstage. I've written, too, about memorizing his work (I know more than a dozen sonnets + a number of famous speeches from the plays), and I've written about my reluctance even to begin my Shakespeare journey. (I've also published on Kindle Direct a YA biography of the Bard: All the World's a Stage: The Worlds of William Shakespeare, 2012; here's a link to that book.)
I've also written here about my experiences teaching Shakespeare over the years--the good, the bad, the ugly. I had some of the best times of my career working with the Bard--and some difficult times, too.
But today--around the time when he was born--I've been thinking about the whole concept of "birthday" and what it means. And I've realized that Shakespeare is reborn every time someone sees a play, reads a sonnet, watches a film. And I think, too, that each of us, coming to his work for the first time, is in a sense reborn, as well.
The hard part: We must prepare ourselves to enter his world. His vocabulary was different--as was just about everything else: government, religion, family life, transportation, recreation, communication, clothing, food. You name it. We can't really encounter the plays meaningfully if we do not make the effort to enter his world. And that takes some work.
I've said this before--but it's worth repeating. If he were suddenly to materialize in a high school cafeteria today, he would not understand much of anything. Everything he saw would be alien; he would understand few words he heard. The food would surprise him, the music shock him, the clock on the wall puzzle him, the iPhones make him wish he were dead again ... But if he wanted to communicate with the (very surprised) students at his cafeteria table, he would have a lot of learning to do first--a lot of catching up. Just as we do ...
I can tell you that it's worth it. Things I've learned about the Elizabethan world have illuminated scenes that had always been dark to me. And I've realized a simple formula: The more I know, the more I enjoy.
I'm still learning. I still hear lines from the stage that baffle me. But I know this: It's not his fault. It's mine. And I know that I have more to learn, and more to learn, and ... It seems endless with the Bard. I taught Hamlet to high school juniors the last decade of my career, and every single year I noticed things I'd not noticed before, understood lines that had confused me. But for me, this is one of his greatest gifts--the gift of surprise. Endless surprise. I learned that if I'm willing to do what it takes to enter his world, he will be there, holding the door open, inviting me in.